Category: evolution

It Is Impossible to Predict How Humans Will Evolve

We all know what Neanderthals looked like: the beetling brow ridges, thick nose, long skull, massive bone structure – and probably red hair and freckled skin. You might do a double-take if you saw one on the subway, wearing a suit, or you might not. But you would surely look twice at the hunter-gatherers that populated Europe between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago, whose DNA scientists are analysing now. They had dark skin and, very likely, bright-blue eyes, like the beautiful child from Afghanistan you see in the photograph above. This combination essentially vanished from ancient Europe, replaced by light-skinned, brown-eyed farmers who moved in from the Middle East over the course of several centuries, and who looked like most of the population of southern Europe today.

These early farmers, who depended on milk, have the gene for lactose tolerance that is missing in the old hunter-gatherer population. They ate much less meat and far more starch than the original meat-eating Europeans, and depended both on milk and on sunlight for vitamin D – hence their lighter skin. As for the dark, blue-eyed people, they disappeared from Europe, swamped genetically by the invaders over time.

This is a tale of fast human evolution. New ways of living – farming crops, and herding animals rather than hunting – led to the rapid expansion of genes that took advantage of these cultural adaptations. The ancestral dark skin, probably inherited from our common forebears in Africa, could have been a disadvantage if most calories came from cultivated grains rather than meat from wild animals, rich in vitamin D. Blue eyes remained, though the form of the gene (called an allele) for blue eye colour is recessive, and easily swamped by alleles for brown eyes. So within some span of time – we can’t say exactly how long – ancient Europeans began to look quite different. There was also an influx of genes from east Asia, from peoples likely resembling the modern Chukchi and other native Siberian groups closely related to Native Americans. Ancient Europe was a melting pot, but certain alleles, for light skin and brown eyes, became dominant as the hunter-gatherer way of life receded against an influx of farmers and farming.

Image source: Nik.vuk/Wikimedia Commons

We think of evolution, described by Charles Darwin in 1859, as a slow dance: nature chooses the best-adapted organisms to reproduce, multiply and survive in any given ecosystem. As organisms adapt to changing ecological circumstances over millennia, the varieties best-suited to the environment thrive, allowing species to emerge and evolve. This is the process known as natural selection, or differential reproduction, which simply means that the organisms best-adapted to their particular, immediate circumstances will pass on more genes to the next generation than their less-well-adapted conspecifics (members of the same species).

Permanent change, of the kind we see in the fossil record, takes more time. Just look at the plodding trajectory of the several-hoofed Hyracotherium, a dog-sized forest-dwelling mammal that gradually lost its side toes (four on the front legs and three on the back) as the central one enlarged. It took 55 million years for it to evolve into the large, single-hoofed, grass-feeding horse we know today.

But sometimes evolution happens fast. As the biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant at Princeton University in New Jersey showed in their studies of Galapagos finches, small beaks can change into large beaks in a single generation, depending on climate conditions and the type of food to be found on those harsh islands. The small-beaked birds might die out, while the large-beaked prevail, for a while at least. But those rapid changes aren’t often permanent. Though the Grants might have witnessed the evolution of an entirely new, heavy-bodied finch species, many of the changes they saw in finches’ beaks were reversed, again and again. Changes in vegetation could mean that large beaks become a handicap. This shifting process – small changes over short periods of time – is called ‘microevolution’.

The evolutionary biologists David Lahti of Queens College at the City University of New York and Paul W Ewald of the University of Louisville both argue that there’s nothing exceptional about fast evolution. Rapid change, transient or lasting, simply reflects the intensity of selection, the strong action of Darwin’s ‘hostile forces of nature’, including predation, heat, cold, parasites. Difficult times could mean extinction for some species, or fast evolution for others. But to enable fast evolution, you must have enough genetic variation present in the underlying gene pool for selection to work upon. Hence the swift replacement of the hunter-gatherer with the farmer in ancient Europe. Light-skin genes overtook dark-skin genes because, likely, those genes better fit both the European environment and a new way of life.

Lahti adds that for human populations social selection becomes paramount: the presence of other hostile groups and the human ability for in-group cooperation drove the emergence of human social complexity and the evolution of the human brain. We don’t know whether the contact between European hunters and Middle Eastern farmers (or the East Asian people who also contributed their genes to the European pot) were friendly or hostile. Likely, in ancient Europe, there were skirmishes; likely, also, there were peaceful exchanges. We can’t know: all we see is the result, the apparent swamping of one set of traits for others that gradually became fixed in the area.

Of course, blond hair and light skin came to characterise Europe in the far north, among the ancestral Scandinavian population; pale skin here is likely an adaptation to vitamin D shortage. Dark skin remains a useful adaptation in hot, sunny climates. As climate changes, perhaps local variations in human appearance will be favoured in ways we don’t yet know.

Human evolution and the forces that produce it have never stopped. Some people will always be favoured genetically, and their offspring will be more likely to survive. That’s the essence of natural selection. And so adaptation and human evolution go on all the time. As a species, it’s impossible to say that we’re evolving in a particular direction – towards bigger heads and spindly limbs, say, as science fiction often suggests. But on the local level, adaptation and natural selection are always at work, adapting us to combat whatever threats – new diseases, climate change, new social selection processes – are now, often invisibly, at hand.Aeon counter – do not remove

Wendy Orent

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

The post It Is Impossible to Predict How Humans Will Evolve appeared first on Futurism.

Scientific Evidence Suggests That Human Cities Are Spawning New Species

New Species

The environments in which we live are drastically different than they were even 100 years ago. Could this cause new species to emerge all around us? In a word — yes.

Modern cities are so different from previous human living circumstances that biology professors Marc Johnson, of University of Toronto, and Jason Munshi-South, of Fordham University in New York, are arguing that the creatures that share these urban spaces with us are actually evolving. Their paper on this evolution was published in Science this past Thursday. 

In exploring scientific literature, Johnson and Munshi-South observed that in Tucson, Arizona, and Oxford, England, researchers have reported a growth in the size of the beaks of house finches and great tits to become more compatible with bird feeders. In Puerto Rico’s cities, the crested anole lizard is developing longer limbs and stickier toes — though the reason for this not yet confirmed.

In multiple locations, fish and pests are becoming resistant to human-made pollution and poison. There is even a new mosquito species that resides underground in sewers and subway tunnels. These examples are just a fraction of the animals that are transforming as a result of the dramatic changes humans have made to the environment.

Evolving Habitats

In some populations, mutated genes that are better suited to our city environments are becoming more common. These genetic changes are in resulting in animals that take on behaviors, appearances, and responses to their environment that are different than those of their ancestors.

So, what changes in our shared environment are pushing these species to evolve? The researchers have found that contributing factors include artificial light, asphalt, brick and glass, pollution, concrete tunnels, and other human-manufactured introductions. Our cities are bright, concrete, and drastically different from even suburban, residential areas.

Animals That Went Extinct In The 21st Century [Infographic]
Click to View Full Infographic

Johnson and Munshi-South also found that pollution seems to boost mutation rates in a variety of species. This was specifically observed in gulls and mice near steel plants — locations that have especially problematic and concentrated pollution. It can only be imagined how the combined effects of pollution and climate change might change the evolutionary pattern of various species. Also, additions like highways have been shown to isolate species, leading certain populations to differ from others.

Humans are arguably initiating a new phase of evolution. Scientists are calling this new era driven by human action the Anthropocene. From agriculture to climate change and overpopulation, we are unintentionally steering genetic drift.

This study is evidence that, since the industrial revolution, we have had an exponential impact on how Earth and its inhabitants have changed. But now we must ask ourselves, what are the benefits of humanity’s influence, and what are the consequences?

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Brain Implants Will Drive Our Evolution and “Extend Our Capabilities”

Evolution Isn’t Over

It took billions of years for homo sapiens to emerge, but that’s not the end of our story — humans, scientists agree, continue to evolve. For much of human history, the technology we have created has changed us. Now, as electronics advance at an unprecedented pace, scientists suspect that they might literally affect the trajectory of future generations of humans.

Stanford neuroscientist E.J. Chichilnisky, who is working on an artificial retina to help restore vision to people with medical conditions that have caused them to lose their sight, brought this up in a recent conversation. “In the future, we will be designing how we evolve our brains, rather than just letting it happen by the extremely slow and random process of natural selection,” he told Futurism. “This evolution will happen by developing devices, such as artificial retinas, memory implants, and more, that interface directly to the brain and extend our capabilities. In turn, I expect that this enhancement will allow us to make smarter choices about the next steps in our evolution, so that our species can rise to the challenges that we will inevitably face.”

The idea isn’t as ludicrous as it may appear. “I think what he’s proposing is not crazy. It’s perfectly plausible,” Blake Richards, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Toronto, told Futurism.

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Will humans evolve with their devices?

If these predictions come true, we might not recognize ourselves in the future…

Posted by Futurism on Monday, October 23, 2017

Scientists have, of course, already created devices that interface with the brain. Deep brain stimulation, small electrical currents emitted on particular circuits in the brain, can reduce the symptoms for Parkinson’s and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Amputees can operate a growing number of prosthetic arms, hands, and legs with simply their thoughts.

It’s easy to see how that kind of technology could expand beyond treating medical conditions into the realm of human enhancement. Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and executive coach, predicted in an email to Futurism that the next generation of devices that can interface with the brain could bring about implanted chips to pay for goods automatically, devices that can modulate our mood or alertness, or apps that help us recognize and cut out unhealthy behaviors. Richards anticipates that devices will be able to augment our memories. Others have made more extreme predictions — Elon Musk reportedly wants to upload human brains to the internet, and even launched a company to create the technology to make this possible.

A Society Poised For Change

For now, though, the tools that interact with our brains are crude. We might use these interventions to treat disease and aid people with disabilities, but in many cases, scientists still don’t really understand how these tools work. “Figuring out how to answer someone when they ask you a question, putting on your clothes — these basic things are totally mysterious to us [from a neuroscience perspective],” Richards said

“Humans are both enabled and limited by our tools,” Bryan Johnson*, founder and CEO of Kernel, a company designing hardware and software to augment human intelligence, told Futurism. “We’re in an era without great tools for neurotechnology. [Chichilnisky] sees this emergent era in which we do have better tools, and the options open up for us.”

In labs run by academic institutions, corporations, and government entities, scientists are working to change that. They face a daunting task, but one that’s not impossible. “There’s an engineering problem: How do you communicate with a large number of neurons in the brain over a long time without damaging them?” Richards said. “It’s not trivial, but it’s an engineering problem. I would expect us to solve at some point… probably within our lifetimes.”

To invent a technology that could affect our abstract thought, researchers would need a concrete data set to start with. And our current technology hasn’t given us much of it, especially outside the highly structured confines of the lab. Scientists, in short, would probably need to have much deeper knowledge of how the brain works (beyond our knee-jerk reactions) in order to bring this technology to light.

This kind of innovation may seem like a luxury, not a necessity. But soon, Johnson noted, they may become mandatory for our survival. “Intelligence is the most powerful and precious resource in existence. We decide who we allow to reproduce. We make all those decisions on other forms of intelligence. We’re brutal with our intelligence. And we’re giving birth to a new form of intelligence,” Johnson said.

He’s talking, of course, about artificial intelligence, which some experts and futurists have heralded as a possible threat to the continuation of the human race. “In the absence of anyone knowing what the future holds, the safest bet for humanity is to be thoughtful about how we develop AI,” Johnson said.

Our societies will likely adapt to disruptive technology faster than our biology. In fact, it’s already happening. Technology alters the skills we value and what we need to know to succeed — smartphones have meant that kids today need to memorize less than their parents or grandparents. Sophisticated devices that interface directly with the brain will push this shift to an even greater extreme.

 

Tag Hartman-Simkins/Getty

Shaping Our Future Selves

As a species, humans are amazingly adaptable. We develop genetic mutations that allow us to live in extreme environments and to get nutrition from a wide diversity of products. That’s the result of the long process of natural selection that has been shaped by technological innovations—from the fire that allowed us to cook our food, to the domestication of animals that allowed us to be more sedentary, to the clothes that allowed us to colonize the farthest reaches of the planet.

“We are different from our ancestors because of how we interact with our technology,” Richards said. “People will get worried that this isn’t how we evolved. But humans adapt. They will adopt this technology generally.” As technology becomes more integrated with our lives, other forces may become more powerful in shaping us.

Yet, natural selection is a slow process. And though we don’t know exactly how technology could change our biology, one thing is clear: These days, technological innovations are happening much faster than shifts in our biology. It’s reasonable to question, then, whether we can keep improving as fast as the digital entities we create.

There may be technologies, however, that hasten the biological shifts, too. “If we get to the point where you truly have a cognitive link — you can read my mind, or give me experiences — then we’re in a realm where the subjective mental aspect of our experience is no longer private. Now you’re talking about a different situation. It will be truly transformative. There’s no telling where humans go from there,” Richards said.

When this technology arrives, and likely before it, there will be ethical questions to answer. Who should regulate it, since historically the government has been slow to catch up on rapid advances? It’s easier for the wealthy and powerful to access cutting-edge innovation, so if something truly transformative emerged, could our society (or our biology) further fracture into those who have and those who do not? How will we prevent hackers from entering our minds?

Like with all changes, it’s impossible to predict if they will make people’s lives better or worse. “[Enhancements] will make us smarter, faster and stronger, and they will improve our longevity. But it remains questionable whether they will make us more creative, empathic, or intuitive,” Swart said.

“You could say humans are ill-equipped to manage the affairs of society. Where’s the proof? Exhibit A is all of human history,” Johnson said. If we had new tools, he added, maybe we could become a better species.

Future humans may look totally different than we do today. They may care about different things, or spend their time differently, or live lives that don’t even resemble ours. Technology will certainly play a role, as it has for most of human existence. But few are confident about the specific effects it will have.

“When you look back at our history, humans are awful at predicting the future, especially when it comes to how technology will emerge and impact society,” Johnson said. Maybe it’s wise to wait and see.

*Disclosure: Bryan Johnson is an investor in Futurism; he does not hold a seat on our editorial board or have any editorial review privileges.

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Remarkable Images of London Show the City’s Evolution Over Nearly 2,000 Years

Like all living things, cities have lifespans. London started as a small Roman settlement along the Thames River. Initially encompassing just a few families, today, more than 8.6 million people call the place home. So take a moment to take a journey. Here are is a series of maps, paintings, and old-time photographs that show the journey of the British capital from the past to today.

Two recent archaeological excavations, in 1999 and 2010, suggest that there were settlements near London’s Thames River as early as 4500 BC. The area saw a widespread adoption of agriculture in the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

A 1974 painting of a Bronze Age farming settlement. Alan Sorrell/Museum of London Image (Source: British History Online)

The Romans founded Londinium (now called London) in 43 AD. This artist’s illustration of Londinium in 200 AD shows the city’s first bridge over the Thames River.

Image Source: Imgur

From the 7th to 11th centuries, Anglo-Saxons moved into Londinium. Their settlement was laid out in a grid pattern and grew to contain between 10,000 and 12,000 people.

An artist’s reconstruction of the Roman town of Venta Icenorum. Image Source: Sue White/University of Nottingham

Westminster Abbey, built in the 10th century, is a World Heritage Site and one of London’s oldest and most important buildings. Here it is in a 1749 painting.

Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

William, Duke of Normandy, was crowned King of England there on Christmas Day, 1066 — just after it was completed. By the 11th century, London had the largest port in England. In the 12th century, the English royal court began to grow in size and sophistication and settled in Westminster, a neighborhood in central London.

The Old Palace at Westminster. Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

In 1176, King Henry II commissioned a new stone bridge. Finished in 1284, the original London Bridge would stand for over 600 years. It supported homes and shops — which weighed down its arches over time.

“View of London Bridge,” a 1632 oil painting by Claude de Jongh. Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

The development of the printing press in the early 15th century made news available to the entire city and improved literacy levels. Coffeehouses also became popular spots for friendly debates.

A London coffee house, circa 1660s. Image Source: Public Domain

In the 17th century, London suffered from the Great Plague, which killed about 100,000 people. In 1666, the Great Fire broke out; it took the city a decade to rebuild.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The city became a major hub for trade throughout the 1700s, and the Port of London expanded downstream.

London Bridge, circa 1750. Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

During the Georgian era (from 1714 to 1830), new districts like Mayfair formed, and new bridges over the Thames encouraged development in South London.

London’s Trafalgar Square in 1814. Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

In the mid-19th century, London overtook Amsterdam as the Europe’s leading financial center…and the Royal Navy became the world’s leading military fleet.

London in the 19th century. Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

London was the largest city in the world from 1831 until 1925, when New York City superseded it. The growing population and increased traffic led to the creation of the world’s first local, underground urban rail network in the late 1860s. An extensive sewage system was also constructed.

London Sewage system being built in 1860. Source: WikiMedia

WWII devastated London starting in 1941. As seen below, civilians hid in underground train stations to get away from air raids, which killed approximately 30,000 Londoners by the war’s end. The city then slowly began to rebuild itself.

Bomb-damaged commercial buildings line London’s Cannon Street in 1941. Source: Getty Images

The city has maintained its place as a center of global power …

Piccadilly Circus in London, circa 1950s. Image Source: Transpressnz

… and today, over 8.6 million people reside there.

Aerial panoramic cityscape view of London and the River Thames in the 2000s. Source: Getty Images.

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Are Birds Just Dinosaurs With Beaks? Scientists May Know the Answer

Once you know that many dinosaurs had feathers, it seems much more obvious that they probably evolved into birds. But there’s still a big question. How did a set of dinosaurian jaws with abundant teeth (think T. rex) turn into the toothless jaws of modern birds, covered by a beak? Two things had to happen in this transition, suppression of the teeth and growth of the beak. Now new fossil evidence has shown how it happened.

In a new study, Shuo Wang from the Capital Normal University of Beijing and colleagues studied a series of dinosaur and early bird fossils to see the transition. They found that some dinosaurs evolved to lose their teeth as they got older and sprouted a small beak. Over time, this process happened earlier and earlier until eventually the animals emerged from their eggs with a fully formed beak.

The oldest birds actually had reptilian-like teeth — for example Archaeopteryx from the late Jurassic period (150m years ago) and Sapeornis from the early Cretaceous (125m years ago). But other early birds had lost their teeth, such as Confuciusornis, also from the early Cretaceous.

Modern birds all lack teeth, except for the South American hoatzin, Opisthocomus, whose hatchlings have a small tooth that they use to help them escape from their egg and then shed. Developmental experiments in the 1980s showed that modern birds could probably generate teeth if their jaw tissue was artificially stimulated with the right molecules. This suggests their ancestors at some point grew teeth naturally.

Meanwhile, many dinosaurs actually did have beaks of some kind. Beaks are composed of keratin, the tough, flexible protein that also makes fingernails and cow horns, as well as feathers and hairs. We typically think of beaks as all-encompassing structures, extending from the pointed tip at the front back to the eyes, and including the nostrils in modern birds. But fossil examples show that many toothed dinosaurs actually possessed a minimal beak at the front of the snout.

To find out exactly how beaks came to replace dinosaur teeth, the researchers had to look inside the animals’ jaw bones. Dinosaur bone fossils are not simply rocky casts of the original bone, but they nearly always show all the internal structure. A microscopic thin section from any dinosaur bone shows all the detail of internal canals for blood vessels and nerves, as well as pits where the bone-generating cells sat. Thin sections of fossil jaw bones show the teeth in as much detail as in any modern jaw bone.

Caenagnathasia jawbone. Image Credit: Hailong Zang

Nowadays, bones are rarely cut up, and it is much more common to use computed tomography (CT) scanning to look inside the bones without damaging them. The CT scans are a closely spaced series of X-rays that allow researchers to construct detailed 3D models showing every fine detail within the bone.

Wang and colleagues observed that the theropod dinosaur Limusaurus, which was closely related to birds’ ancestors, and the early bird Sapeornis had teeth right to the front of the jaws when they were young but lost them as they grew up. The detailed internal scans of the fossils showed adult Limusaurus had no teeth but still had tooth sockets in their lower jaws, closed off and forming a single canal. In adult Sapeornis, there were teeth at the back of the jaw but not at the front of the jaw.

As modern birds develop inside their eggs, the beak keratin begins to form at the tip of the snout and then grows back to cover both upper and lower jaws. Wang and colleagues argue that the mechanisms that regulate beak growth also suppress tooth formation. This is supported by studies of the gene BMP4 that show it controls both functions in modern birds.

Using the fossils to show how the animals evolved over time suggests beaks in some dinosaurs and bird relatives originally expanded backwards as the animals grew up and tooth sockets closed off. Eventually, this process happened earlier and earlier in the developmental cycle until hatchlings emerged with beaks and no teeth. Today, the bone gene BMP4 controls aspects of beak growth and tooth suppression, and these might have been acting early in bird evolution.

For more evidence, Wang and colleagues looked more widely across vertebrates that have lost or reduced their teeth as they evolved, including some fishes, frogs, pangolins, whales and the entirely toothless turtles. In all cases, animals that had lost their teeth were associated with replacement of the teeth by a keratin beak.

These kind of developmental observations help confirm the theory that the exquisite dinosaur fossils point to. In becoming birds, dinosaurs had to change in many ways, including shrinking in size, sprouting wings, adapting feathers that were used for display and flight, improving their senses, shortening their tails, losing teeth, and many other characters. It is important to be able to identify plausible evidence for how each of these amazing changes happened.

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Evolutionary Geneticists Spot Natural Selection Happening Now in People

Human evolution can seem like a phenomenon of the distant past which applies only to our ancestors living millions of years ago. But human evolution is ongoing. To evolve simply means that mutations — the accidental changes to genes that happen normally in the process of copying DNA — are becoming more or less common in the population over time.

These changes can happen by chance, because the individuals who reproduced happened to carry a particular mutation somewhat more often than individuals who didn’t have children. They can also happen because of natural selection, when carriers of a specific mutation are better able to survive, reproduce, or tend to their family members — and therefore leave more descendants. Every biological adaptation, from the ability of humans to walk upright on two feet to flight in birds, ultimately traces back to natural selection acting on these minute changes, generation after generation.

So humans are definitely still evolving. The question is whether we are still adapting: are individuals who carry harmful mutations living less long, reproducing less — ultimately leaving fewer descendants? For instance, terrible eyesight may have been a major survival disadvantage living on the savanna, but with glasses and laser surgery, it’s unlikely to prevent people from living a long life today. How commonly then are mutations under selection in contemporary humans?

Long Time Scale Makes Evolution Hard to Study

Because adaptations involve tiny changes in the frequencies of mutations from generation to generation and their fortune plays out over tens to hundreds of thousands of years, they are incredibly hard to study directly — at least in long-lived organisms such as people.

So while there is overwhelming evidence for human evolution and unequivocal footprints of adaptation in the genome, rarely have scientists been able to directly observe natural selection operating in people. As a result, biologists still understand very little about the workings of natural selection in humans.

Indeed, one of the clearest footprints of a past adaptation in the human genome involves a mutation that permits milk to be digested in adulthood. This mutation in the lactase gene rapidly rose in frequency with the rise of dairy farming thousands of years ago, independently in multiple populations. It’s the reason some people can drink milk as adults, whereas most remain lactose intolerant.

But even in this well-studied case, let alone for the rest of the genome, researchers don’t know whether the mutation was beneficial for survival or for reproduction; whether the benefits were the same for both sexes, or across all ages; or whether the benefit depended on the environment (for instance, availability of other food sources). As pointed out by evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin in the 1960s, to learn these properties of natural selection would require a massive study, in which genetic and genealogical information is obtained for hundreds of thousands of people.

Fifty years later, our group realized that this thought experiment is starting to become feasible. We sought large biomedical data sets that would let us learn about mutations that affect survival.

Looking at Gene Frequency Across Age Groups

Our basic idea was that mutations that lower the chance of survival should be present at lower frequency in older individuals. For example, if a mutation becomes harmful at the age of 60 years, people who carry it have a lower chance to survive past 60 — and the mutation should be less common among those who live longer than that.

We therefore looked for mutations that change in frequency with age among around 60,000 individuals from California (part of the GERA cohort) and around 150,000 from the U.K. Biobank. To avoid the complication that people whose ancestors lived in different places carry a somewhat different set of mutations, we focused on the largest group with shared ancestry within each study.

Across the genome, we found two variants that endanger survival. The first is a variant of the APOE gene, which is a well-known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. It drops in frequency beyond age 70. The second harmful variant we found is a mutation in the CHRNA3 gene. Associated with heavy smoking, this inherited mutation starts to decrease in frequency at middle age in men, because carriers of this mutation are less likely to survive longer.

People who carry a variant of the APOE gene die at a higher rate and are less common among the old age categories. Image Credit: Mostafavi et al, PLOS Biology, CC BY

Both deleterious variants only had an effect long after the typical ages of reproduction for both females and males. Biologists usually consider such mutations to not be under selection. After all, by late middle age, most people have already passed their genes on to whatever offspring they’ll have, so it seems like it might not matter how long they live beyond that point.

Why then would we only find two, when our study was large enough to detect any such variant, if common in the population? One possibility is that mutations that only imperil survival so late in life almost never arise. While that is possible, the genome is a large place, so that seems unlikely.

The other intriguing possibility is that natural selection prevents even late-acting variants from becoming common in the population by natural selection, if they have large enough effects. Why might that be? For one, men can father children in old age. Even if only a tiny fraction of them do so, it may be enough of an evolutionary fitness cost for selection to act on. Survival beyond the age of reproduction could also be beneficial for the survival of related individuals who carry the same mutations, most directly children. In other words, surviving past typical reproductive ages may be beneficial for humans after all.

Smokers who carry a mutation in the CHRNA3 gene tend to smoke more cigarettes per day and so are more exposed to harmful effects of smoking. Image Credit: NeONBRAND on Unsplash, CC BY

Your Mutations do Influence Your Survival

In addition to examining one mutation at a time, we were also interested in considering sets of mutations that have all been shown to influence the same trait, and might have very subtle effects on survival individually. For example, researchers have identified approximately 700 common mutations that influence height, each contributing only millimeters. To this end, we considered tens to hundreds of mutations that shape variation in one of 42 traits.

We found genetic mutations linked to a number of diseases and metabolic traits that decrease survival rates: individuals who are genetically predisposed to have higher total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, risk of heart disease, BMI, risk of asthma, or lower HDL cholesterol tend to die younger than others.

Perhaps more surprisingly, we discovered that people who carry mutations that delay puberty or the age at which they have their first child tend to live longer. It was known from epidemiological studies that early puberty is associated with adverse effects later in life such as cancer and obesity. Our results indicate some of that effect is probably due to heritable factors.

So humans carry common mutations that affect their survival and natural selection appears to act on at least a subset, in some contemporary environments. But what is bad in one context may well not be in another; as one example, the CHRNA3 variant has an effect because people smoke. These are early days, however, and our findings offer only a first glimpse of what can soon be gleaned from millions of genomes, in combination with genealogical records. In future work, it will be important to study not only lifespan, but also the number of children and grandchildren individuals leave, as well as populations and environments worldwide.

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Scientists May Have Discovered the ‘Trigger’ for Complex Life on Earth

“Oxygenation was waiting to happen.”

The early oceans and atmospheres of Earth had no free oxygen, although photosynthetic cyanobacteria produced it as a byproduct. Free oxygen isn’t combined with other elements such as nitrogen or carbon, and aerobic organisms like humans need it to survive. About three billion years ago, small pockets of free oxygen started to appear in the oceans, and then about 2.4 billion years ago, a rapid increase in atmospheric oxygen took place. During this period of about 200 million years, the amount of free oxygen in the atmosphere suddenly jumped by about 10,000 times. This time is known as the Great Oxidation Event, and it transformed the Earth’s surface chemical reactions entirely.

University British Columbia geologist Matthijs Smit and his colleague, University of Bern professor Klaus Mezger, knew that the Great Oxidation Event also transformed the composition of continents, so they began to study records of the geochemistry of igneous rocks and shales from all over the world to find a link — more than 48,000 rocks going back billions of years.

 

Image Credit: Heinrich D. Holland/Wiki Commons
Image Credit: Heinrich D. Holland/Wiki Commons

“It turned out that a staggering change occurred in the composition of continents at the same time free oxygen was starting to accumulate in the oceans,” Smit said in a press release. “Oxygenation was waiting to happen,” Smit added. “All it may have needed was for the continents to mature.”

Oxygenation Trigger

The rock in modern Iceland and the Faroe Islands provides examples similar to what could be found in the continents before oxygenation: rocks rich in magnesium and low in silica. However, the rocks from the past contained the mineral olivine, which initiates oxygen-consuming chemical reactions when it comes into contact with water, locking up oxygen. That is probably what happened early in Earth’s history when cyanobacteria produced oxygen.

As the continental crust evolved to become more like it is today, olivine virtually disappeared and the reaction it initiated stopped, allowing oxygen to accumulate. Once oceans became saturated with oxygen, the gas crossed into the atmosphere.

How Life Evolved on Earth (Infographic)
Click to View Full Infographic

“It really appears to have been the starting point for life diversification as we know it,” Smit said in the release. “After that change, the Earth became much more habitable and suitable for the evolution of complex life, but that needed some trigger mechanism, and that’s what we may have found.”

Although the cause of the change in the continents remains unknown, Smit notes that modern plate tectonics started at about that time, and many researchers theorize a connection between the events.

This isn’t exactly about evolution, or abiogenesis, but by discovering how the most necessary substance for complex life became ubiquitous, these scientists may have solved a term in the equation for the origin Earth-based life. Such valuable knowledge could also be applied to our search for life beyond the solar system. We already suspect that the two innermost exoplanets of the TRAPPIST-1 system might have vast amounts of liquid water. If (or when) we discern the presence of oxygen, could we deduce the positions and composition(s) of exoplanets’ continents, thus narrowing down a few terms on the far end of the Drake equation?

The answer awaits.

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New Research May Explain the Origin of Complex Life on Earth

Simply Complex

Life remains one of the greatest and most beautiful mysteries of the universe. For one, it continues to baffle scientists that we only seem to have found life here on Earth and nowhere else in the vast expanse of space. For the time being, at least. The origins of life itself, from the simple to the complex, is a story of scientific wonder — one that is still being written today.

In a recent study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, researchers from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwaterstrand (Wits University), Johannesburg in South Africa discussed a discovery regarding how complex life evolved on Earth. “Life was a chance event, there is no doubt about that,” researcher Pierre Durand from the Evolution of Complexity Laboratory said in a press release.

This chance event Durand was referring to was that small strands of molecules linked up to form larger molecules capable of self-replication. Through a chemical reaction called ligation, simple RNA molecules join with other RNA molecules thanks to an enzyme they possessed. Supposedly, RNAs randomly connected with each other and replicated, thereby jump starting the process of life. “Molecular trade-offs in RNA ligases affected the modular emergence of complex ribozymes at the origin of life,” Durrand explained.

origin of life rna ligation complex life evolution
Image credit: Wits University

Life’s Simple Beginnings

In their research, Durrand and his colleagues successfully demonstrated how it’s possible for small, non-living molecules to become larger molecules capable of reproducing themselves. This is a crucial step in a series of many that made it possible for life to evolve over a long period of time. “Something needed to happen for these small molecules to interact and form longer, more complex molecules and that happened completely by chance,” Durand added.

Even more surprising was how the smallest of these simple molecules (a 40-nucleotide RNA) was smaller than what the researchers expected. Nucleotides are the building blocks of nucleic acids, which in turn make up RNA and DNA. “The small molecules are very promiscuous and can join other pieces to themselves,” Durrand explained. “What was interesting was that these smaller molecules were smaller than we had originally thought.”

As our understanding of how complex life came to be continues to evolve, we learn more about what makes life possible. Furthermore, now that we know how complex life came to be on Earth, perhaps we’ll be better equipped to find life elsewhere. Whether complex life started on the oceans — as is widely accepted — or on land, what’s clear is that it started at a particular moment in Earth’s history.

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Newly Discovered Fossils Reveal Earliest Complex Life on Earth

Before Life Exploded

An international team of scientists, including paleontologists from the University of Manchester, have dug up what could be the fossils of the earliest complex life forms on Earth. In a study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, the researchers said they’ve uncovered a set of trace fossils — tracks and burrows left by organisms capable of movement — in sediments located in the Corumbá region of western Brazil.

“This is an especially exciting find due to the age of the rocks – these fossils are found in rock layers which actually pre-date the oldest fossils of complex animals – at least that is what all current fossil records would suggest,” researcher Russell Garwood from Manchester’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences said in a press release.

Image Credit: James St. John

While the fossils aren’t exactly physical remains or body parts, the findings are still telling. These trace fossils date back some 541 million years ago, from a period of transition between the Ediacaran and Cambrian Periods. The latter is that moment in the Earth’s biological history when complex life exploded. Plus, the burrows were actually just 50 to 600 micrometers or microns in diameter, suggesting that these early complex organisms were only about the size of a human hair strand.

“The evolutionary events during the Ediacaran–Cambrian transition are unparalleled in Earth history. That’s because current fossil records suggests that many animal groups alive today appeared in a really short time interval,” Garwood explained.

C’est La Vie

Advances in modern technology have allowed us to do this. With the new study, for instance, the researchers used a process called X-ray microtomography to build 3D computer models of the trace fossils without damaging the original burrows. To ascertain the exact age of these creatures, the researchers used a DNA studies approach that traces an organism’s evolution from a common ancestor called “molecular clock.” Lead author Luke Parry from the University of Bristol said this makes their discovery important, as it “highlights an unexplored window for tracking animal evolution in deep time.”

The Evolution of Human Understanding of the Universe [INFOGRAPHIC]
Click to View Full Infographic

It would seem then that organisms capable of movement came about earlier than previously thought. Indeed, our understanding of how life came to be on Earth continues to evolve, as researchers find more evidence that suggests life could have originated on land and not just in the oceans, as well as fossils providing clues as to how complex life may have originated. Not only that, understanding the origins of complex life on Earth also better equips us to discover complex life beyond Earth.

“Our new fossils show that complex animals with muscle control were around approximately 550 million years ago, and they may have been overlooked previously because they are so tiny,” Parry continued. “The fossils that we describe were made by quite complex animals that we call bilaterians. These are all animals that are more closely related to humans, rather than to simple creatures like jellyfish. Most fossils of bilaterian animals are younger, first appearing in the Cambrian period.”

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A Strange Creature Discovered by Darwin Has Baffled Researchers for Decades

Rediscovering the Macrauchenia

Charles Darwin discovered the bones of Macrauchenia, which went extinct toward the end of the Ice Age, in 1838 while digging in Patagonia. To him they seemed to belong to a kind of prehistoric llama. The remains were analyzed later on by the top anatomist in the UK, Richard Owen, who named the mystery mammal Macrauchenia patachonica. Although Darwin was right that there were some similarities with the llama, Macrauchenia didn’t appear to be a good fit with any existing group of mammals.

Counter-intuitively, the discovery of more fossils clouded the picture instead of clearing it up. Finding a nasal opening that signaled a trunk on the animal’s face resembling a tapir’s caused paleontologists to categorize Macrauchenia as a litoptern. This group of South American mammals arrived on Earth soon after the non-avian dinosaurs died out, and stayed until the end of the Pleistocene period. Perhaps the strangest thing about this group was that they superficially resembled animals found elsewhere in the world — such as elephants and horses — but evolved independently in South America.

However, of all of the mysterious factors surrounding Macrauchenia‘s identity, the strangest was that attempting to trace the animal’s origins through the bones — a process that was usually successful for paleontologists — wasn’t working. The relative isolation of South America, much like that of the Galapagos Islands, allowed evolution to create mammals that were confounding to scientists.

*1* [Evergreen] A Strange Creature Discovered by Darwin Has Baffled Researchers for Decades
That is, until new technology allowed geneticist Michael Westbury and his team to shed more light on the situation. In the past, attempts to harvest genetic details from the bones of Macrauchenia failed. However, a new technique allowed this team to assemble a mitochondrial genome that is very nearly complete. Analysis of this new information allowed scientists to correctly place Macrauchenia within the larger family tree of Earth’s creatures at long last.

Technology Clarifies Past, Future

The mitochondrial genome of any creature reveals matrilineal inheritance — and, therefore, can reveal siblings and other relatives with common female ancestors. The newly sequenced matrilineal genome divulged a sister taxon to the Macrauchenia and its litoptern family: perissodactyls. Also called odd-toed ungulates, this group includes horses, rhinos, and tapirs.

Westbury and his team also found that the two branches of the larger tree diverged around 66 million years ago as the Age of Mammals began. Macrauchenia was one of the last inhabitants of a group that arose just after dinosaurs such as Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus disappeared forever. This transition away from the age of the dinosaur and into the age of mammals is a classic illustration of the way that catastrophic extinction is really only catastrophic from a certain point of view; for survivors, it is simply a new and different era. The solution of the Macrauchenia mystery after almost 200 years is a testament to technology marching on, allowing scientists to understand our planet’s history. The more we know about the Earth’s past, the more mysteries (past and present) will become solvable.

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Humanity Is About to Transition To “Evolution by Intelligent Direction”

Disclaimer: Futurism only supports products that we trust and use. This post is in partnership with Abundance 360, and Futurism may get a small percentage of sales. Want to take a class with Peter Diamandis? Click here to learn more!

Reinventing Humanity

As we close out 2016, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to take a risk and venture into a topic I’m personally compelled to think about, a topic that will seem far-out to most readers.

Today’s extraordinary rate of exponential growth may do much more than just disrupt industries. It may actually give birth to a new species — reinventing humanity — over the next 30 years.

The Evolution of Brain-Computer Interfaces [INFOGRAPHIC]
Click to View Full Infographic

I believe we’re rapidly heading towards a human-scale transformation, the next evolutionary step into what I call a “meta-intelligence,” a future in which we are all highly connected — brain to brain via the cloud — sharing thoughts, knowledge, and actions.

In this blog, I’m investigating the driving forces behind such an evolutionary step, the historical pattern we are about to repeat, and the implications thereof. Again, I acknowledge that this topic seems far-out, but the forces at play are huge and the implications are vast.

Let’s dive in…

A Quick Recap: Evolution of Life on Earth in 4 Steps

About 4.6 billion years ago, our solar system, the Sun, and the Earth were formed. Four steps followed…

  1. 3.5 billion years ago, the first simple life forms, called “prokaryotes,” came into existence. These prokaryotes were super-simple, microscopic single-celled organisms, basically a bag of cytoplasm with free-floating DNA. They had neither a distinct nucleus nor specialized organelles. Fast-forwarding one billion years…
  2. 2.5 billion years ago, the next step in evolution created what we call “eukaryotes” — life forms that distinguished themselves by incorporating biological “technology” into themselves. This technology allowed them to manipulate energy (via mitochondria) and information (via chromosomes) far more efficiently. Fast forward another billion years for the next step…
  3. 1.5 billion years ago, these early eukaryotes began working collaboratively and formed the first “multi-cellular life,” of which you and I are the ultimate example (a human is a multicellular creature of 10 trillion cells).
  4. The final step I want to highlight happened some 400 million years ago, when lungfish crawled out of the oceans onto the shores, and life evolved from the oceans onto land.

The Next Stages of Human Evolution in 4 Steps

Today, at a massively accelerated rate — some 100 million times faster than the steps I outlined above — life is undergoing a similar evolution. In this next stage of evolution, we are going from evolution by natural selection (Darwinism) to evolution by intelligent direction.

Allow me to draw the analogy for you:

  1. Simple humans today are analogous to prokaryotes. Simple life, each life form independent of the others, competing and sometimes collaborating.
  2. Just as eukaryotes were created by ingesting technology, humans will incorporate technology into our bodies and brains that will allow us to make vastly more efficient use of information (BCI) and energy.
  3. Enabled with BCI and AI, humans will become massively connected with each other and billions of AIs (computers) via the cloud, analogous to the first multicellular lifeforms 1.5 billion years ago. Such a massive interconnection will lead to the emergence of a new global consciousness and a new organism I call the “meta-intelligence.”
  4. Finally, humanity is about to crawl out of the gravity well of Earth to become a multi-planetary species. Our journey to the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and beyond represents the modern-day analogy of journey made by lungfish climbing out of the oceans some 400 million years ago.

The Four Forces Driving the Evolution and Transformation of Humanity

Four primary driving forces are leading us towards our transformation of humanity into a meta-intelligence both on and off the Earth:

  1. We’re wiring our planet
  2. Emergence of brain-computer interface
  3. Emergence of AI
  4. Opening of the Space Frontier

Let’s take a look at each.

Wiring the Planet

Today, there are 2.9 billion people connected online. Within the next six to eight years, that number is expected to increase to nearly 8 billion, with each individual on the planet having access to a megabit-per-second connection or better.

The wiring is taking place through the deployment of 5G on the ground, plus networks being deployed by Facebook, Google, Qualcomm, Samsung, Virgin, SpaceX, and many others.

Within a decade, every single human on the planet will have access to multimegabit connectivity, the world’s information, and massive computational power on the cloud.

Brain-Computer Interface

A multitude of labs and entrepreneurs are working to create lasting, high-bandwidth connections between the digital world and the human neocortex (I wrote about that in detail).

Ray Kurzweil predicts we’ll see human-cloud connection by the mid-2030s, just 18 years from now.

In addition, entrepreneurs like Bryan Johnson (and his company Kernel) are committing hundreds of millions of dollars towards this vision.

The end results of connecting your neocortex with the cloud are twofold: First, you’ll have the ability to increase your memory capacity and/or cognitive function millions of fold; second, via a global mesh network, you’ll have the ability to connect your brain to anyone else’s brain and to emerging AIs, just like our cell phones, servers, watches, cars, and all devices are becoming connected via the Internet of Things (IoT).

Artificial Intelligence/Human Intelligence

Next, and perhaps most significantly, we are on the cusp of an AI revolution.

Artificial intelligence, powered by deep learning and funded by companies such as Google, Facebook, IBM, Samsung, and Alibaba, will continue to rapidly accelerate and drive breakthroughs.

Cumulative “intelligence” (both artificial and human) is the single greatest predictor of success for both a company or a nation. For this reason, beside the emerging AI “arms race,” we will soon see a race focused on increasing overall human intelligence.

Whatever challenges we might have in creating a vibrant brain-computer interface (e.g. designing long-term biocompatible sensors or nanobots that interface with your neocortex), those challenges will fall quickly over the next couple of decades as AI power tools give us every increasing problem-solving capability.

It is an exponential atop an exponential. More intelligence gives us the tools to solve connectivity and mesh problems and in turn create greater intelligence.

Opening the Space Frontier

Finally, it’s important to note that the human race is on the verge of becoming a multiplanetary species.

Thousands of years from now, whatever we’ve evolved into, we will look back at these next few decades as the moment in time that the human race moved off Earth irreversibly.

Today, billions of dollars are being invested privately into the commercial space industry. Efforts led by SpaceX are targeting humans on Mars, while efforts by Blue Origin are looking at taking humanity back to the Moon and plans by my own company, Planetary Resources, strive to unlock near-infinite resources from the asteroids.

In Conclusion

The rate of human evolution is accelerating as we transition from the slow and random process of “Darwinian natural selection” to a hyper-accelerated and precisely directed period of “evolution by intelligent direction.”

In this blog, I chose not to discuss the power being unleashed by such gene-editing techniques as CRISPR-Cas9. Consider this yet another tool able to accelerate evolution by our own hand.

The bottom line is that change is coming, faster than ever considered possible. All of us leaders, entrepreneurs, and parents have a huge responsibility to inspire and guide the transformation of humanity on and off the Earth.

What we do over the next 30 years — the bridges we build to abundance — will impact the future of the human race for millennia to come. We truly live during the most exciting time ever in human history.

Disclaimer: Futurism only supports products that we trust and use. This post is in partnership with Abundance 360, and Futurism may get a small percentage of sales. Want to take a class with Peter Diamandis? Click here to learn more!

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New Evidence Indicates That Human Heart Regeneration May Be Possible

A Cue From Nature

Regeneration is arguably one of the coolest “super powers” in nature, and one that humans unfortunately do not possess. However, that may not always have to be the case as University of Florida (UF) scientists, led by Mark Martindale, think that one day we may be able to regenerate not just any body part, but our hearts.

To learn more about this awesome power that sounds like it came straight out of a Marvel comic book, Martindale and his team decided to study one of the creatures that possesses it naturally — the sea anemone — and their findings have now been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The muscle-less and heartless sea anemone is capable of a fascinating kind of regeneration. Unlike something like a lizard that can regrow a chopped-off tail, any piece that’s lopped off a sea anemone regenerates into a completely separate animal.

During their research, Martindale’s UF team discovered genes known to form heart cells in humans and other animals in the guts of these extraordinary creatures. This lead them to question why we aren’t capable of the same type of regeneration if we have the same genes as sea anemones.

The researchers discovered what they believe is a key difference between how these “heart genes” interact with one another in the sea anemone. In vertebrates and flies, once these genes are turned on to express as heart cells, they remain on for the entirety of the animal’s life due to “lockdown loops.” “This ensures that heart cells always stay heart cells and cannot become any other type of cell,” said Martindale in a UF press release.

This isn’t the case in sea anemones, however, as they don’t have this lockdown mechanism as embryos. That means the heart genes in their guts can turn into whatever type of cells the creature needs.

Endless Potential

The UF researchers think the implications of their discovery could be extraordinary. As Martindale noted, “Our study shows that if we learn more about the logic of how genes that give rise to heart cells talk to each other, muscle regeneration in humans might be possible.”

Bioprinting: How 3D Printing is Changing Medicine
Click to View Full Infographic

To that end, they want to explore how to access this ability in the heart genes found in the definitive muscle cells of vertebrates. They think these genes initially came from a type of bifunctional gut tissue similar to that of the anemone. “The idea is these genes have been around a long time and preceded the twitchy muscles that cover our skeleton,” Martindale explained.

If the mechanism can be reverse engineered, it might be possible in the future to coax muscle cells into regenerating into other cells, including heart cells. Of course, more research is necessary to realize this, but this link between humans and sea anemone is a big step in organ regeneration research, a field that has been getting a lot of attention lately as it could help us treat diseases, end the organ donation shortage, and so much more.

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New Discovery of the Oldest Known Human Remains Will Change the Narrative of Human Evolution

Rediscovering Ourselves

On Wednesday, scientists reported they had discovered the oldest known remains of Homo sapiens in Morocco. The bones and other remains are approximately 300,000 years old. This revelation provides new insights into the origins of humankind: a consequence of such findings would be that human beings evolved earlier than had previously believed. The fossils also indicate that despite fundamental differences in the brains of modern humans and early Homo sapiens, our faces strongly resemble those of our early ancestors.

Until this remarkable find at Jebel Irhoud, the oldest human fossils only dated back 195,000 years. These new fossils make experts believe that our species evolved not in Eastern Africa (specifically near Ethiopia) where later fossils were found, but across the continent in Western Africa where modern Morocco is situated.

“We did not evolve from a single cradle of mankind somewhere in East Africa,” paleoanthropologist Phillipp Gunz, a co-author of the two new studies on the fossils, told The New York Times.

Image Credit: Mohammed Kamal/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary AnthropologyImage Credit: Mohammed Kamal/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology[/caption]

Investing In Research

Before now, fossils found in different places made paleoanthropologists believe that Homo sapiens arose in East Africa and then moved across the continent. However, mysterious human fossils from other parts of Africa didn’t seem to fit in with this story, and caused scientists to wonder where they fit into the Homo sapiens puzzle. The remains discovered in Morocco will help solve these mysteries, even as it suggests new questions for further research.

For example, the recent finds at Jebel Irhoud confirm that Homo sapiens had flatter faces, similar to ours today. National Museum in London paleoanthropologist Christopher Stringer speculates that the flattened faces of early Homo sapiens may be related to the advent of speech. “We really are at very early stages of trying to explain these things,” Dr. Stringer told the The New York Times.

The larger, rounder brain of modern humans is a more recent development. Dr. Gunz indicates that the human brain may have evolved into a rounder shape during a later phase of human existence. Two areas of the brain in particular — the cerebellum and the parietal lobe,  both toward the back of the head — seem to have adapted over thousands of years. That being said, scientists don’t yet know how the rounder brain changed how humans think.

Flint blades from around the same time have been found elsewhere across Africa, and the Jebel Irhoud fossils suggest that they may have been made by early humans. Dr. Gunz and his team believe that is this is true: Homo sapiens may have evolved across the continent as a network of groups. The only way we’ll ever know for sure — and resolve other questions these findings may bring up — will be through additional research, which will require adequate funding.

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Watch: Do We Really Share 99% of Our DNA With Chimps?

We sit on the same branch of the phylogenetic (evolutionary) tree as them, and yet chimps remained in the jungle while we built language, cities, and zoos to put them in. So, in reality, how similar are we to chimps? The video below by MinuteEarth looks at the science behind that often-quoted statistic — we are 99% similar to chimps (and 50% banana, 80% doglike, etc.).

The short video explains that the issue with the statistic is an issue with measurement — a procedural mistake. Genetic changes can stretch from being single letter changes in our genome to entire passages of different genetic information; because of this, those undertaking the study faced an issue with quantification — whether to count every difference as one change or not. To complicate it more, small changes in genes can lead to hugely different characteristics and vice versa.

In response to these difficulties, those undertaking the study excluded the enormous changes and chose to run a straight comparison on the genetic material left. In short, we are 99% chimp, but only if you exclude 25% of our genetic material from the study and 18% of theirs.

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We May Be on the Brink of a New Age in Human Evolution

Accelerating Evolution

Very soon, we could witness an acceleration in human evolution like never seen before, argues Caleb Sharf, director of Astrobiology at Columbia University. He believes that new technologies will change the evolutionary currency from soft, organic matter to machines that exceed these fleshy restraints and can be programmed or upgraded.

“We may be witnessing the first new origin event,” Sharf said in a video interview with Tech Insider. A sprint period in the endurance race of evolution may already be underway thanks to our interaction with the technology we are creating — and that sprint could get even faster when we consider the technologies around the corner.

Some developments may already be here. The internet, Sharf argues in an Aeon opinion article, could be the beginning of a new state of being for the human species.

“Part of our collective wisdom is now uploaded, placed in an omnipresent cloud of data,” Sharf wrote. “Where that’s taking us to isn’t obvious, however. If anything, we could be heading for a hive-mind state, a collective organism more akin to a termite colony or a set of squirmy naked mole-rats.”

But Sharf also argues in his opinion piece that the mechanization of the biological could be part of a much wider and longer process of life moving between biological and machine states as it develops. He wrote, “Someday we might decide that the future of intelligence on Earth requires biology, not machine computation.”

Transformational Technologies

The idea of moving towards a definite end point in evolution is flawed: evolution is not a process with a roadmap, but a process of adaptation to an environment, whatever that environment may be. Those who can survive in the new environment live to pass on their genes — those who cannot, don’t. Therefore, we must not ask ourselves what technologies are making us bigger, stronger, or faster, but which technologies give us the ability to adapt to whatever characteristic is required for survival.

The first of these are bionics. While today’s bionics are aiming to mimic the functionality of a human limb — and getting remarkably close to doing so — when this goal is achieved bionic engineers may aim at exceeding it. Each of us may face an interesting dichotomy: to be inferior but to subscribe to an idea of man that defines “human” according to the natural body as we know it today, or to be a superior transhuman that integrates technology. If limbs become robotic, they also become customizable and therefore can be adapted to whatever the environment requires.

The Evolution of Brain-Computer Interfaces [INFOGRAPHIC]
Click to View Full Infographic

The second of these are Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI). These technologies, which allow the brain to talk directly to computers, open the door for the human mind to sit in a multitude of robotic forms. Should the environment become incredibly hot, for example, we could engineer a robotic body that could stand the heat, and subsequently insert a human brain into it that could control it using a BCI.

Aside from the bodily possibilities, we may also consider the potential for human intelligence. BCIs are not just one way interactions, but can allow computers to impart information onto brains. This gives us another golden key to adaptability: the possibility of having knowledge uploaded that would allow us to predict environmental changes and and engineer our own means of surviving them.

While this may seem outlandish, we must remember that the transfer of information is is the tenet of the Facebook and Elon Musk’s BCIs — although they are twisting this towards communication rather than information. Regardless of how we initially use them, these technologies will likely usher us into a new era of human evolution

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Witness the Remarkable Evolution of Animation in Video Games

We all love video games. Whether it’s a classic game like Mario Party or a mobile game like candy crush saga, everyone has their pick of the litter. But while video games provide us with a fun, light-hearted medium to escape our everyday lives, the industry itself is a behemoth. Just last year, the gaming industry made $91 billion in revenue from mobile, retail, and free-to-play games.

The industry itself is evolving with new innovations. From virtual reality so convincing that you might just vomit to AI interfaces that make computer opponents ruthless, we’re just beginning to realize the potential of gaming. But did anyone truly imagine the capacity for growth that we’ve seen in the gaming industry today, just 40 years after it all began?

Pong — 1972

While there were other “video games” before pong, they weren’t commercialized like the grandfather of all games. Atari’s arcade legend featured a two-dimensional, graphical representation of table tennis, with which players used paddles to hit the ball back and forth until someone scored. The arcade version of Pong was so successful that Bushnell, Atari’s developer, pushed for a home console that could connect to the television, marking the beginning of what was to come.

Donkey Kong — 1981

Nintendo’s Donkey Kong brought something new to the table. While the giant ape took the role of the villain, the main character was at the time known as Jumpman — but we would recognize him today to be the one and only, Mario. The birth of Mario and the immersive gameplay set the precedent for future games.

Doom — 1993

Doom provided an entirely different experience for users. The graphical interface offered immersive three-dimensional gameplay while also inspiring many other first-person shooter games after it. The science-fiction horror game is considered to be one of the most influential games in history.

Halo: Combat Evolved — 2001

Microsoft’s Halo is almost like a rite of passage for gamers today. The multiplayer, military science fiction, first-person shooter is universally praised for it’s mastery of gameplay and graphics and continues to captivates users even today.

Final Fantasy XIII — 2009

Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series is known to blow fans’ minds with its graphical interface. Final Fantasy is a role-playing video game that allows players to roam in an open world, battle enemies, and customize their own characters. The progress in photo-realistic facial effects is prominent in the video game series.

The Witcher 3 — 2015

The action role-playing game, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, gave us far more depth than just great graphics. The characters in the game spoke volumes just by nuances in their gestures. The body language of the characters often told part of the story, and players were only able to pick up on the atmosphere of the conversation once they paid close attention to the details packed in with the impressive graphics.

Brookhaven Experiment — 2016

When you combine impressive graphics with horror virtual reality (VR) games, you get The Brookhaven Experiment. The game is terrifying on its own, but VR survival horror game might just make you wet your pants as it pushes us into a new generation of video game graphics that surround us.

Magic Leap — 2017?

This augmented reality (AR) video game promises to mix reality with — you guessed it — magic! The game makers claim to be developing a head-mounted device virtual retinal display that overlays the game’s graphics onto the real world, but they have been experiencing delays for years. We don’t know when Magic Leap will finally be available to the public, but its demos have some gamers excited to try it.

Our progress in developing video game animations is astounding, so much so that it helped bolster billionaire Elon Musk, owner of Tesla, Solar City, and SpaceX, in his claim that we’re living in a simulation. The overwhelming progress in photo-realistic effects in such a short timespan makes you ponder what humans will be able to develop in the years ahead.

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Scientists Assert That Modern Society is Transforming the Biological Evolution of Our Species

The Evolution of Humankind

Humans are constantly evolving, but scientists are thinking about how environmental changes and social behaviors may increase the rate of evolution in the years to come.

Gregory Cochran, an anthropologist the University of Utah, told Scientific American that through his work analyzing over 3 million DNA sequences, “We found very many human genes undergoing selection. Most are very recent, so much so that the rate of human evolution over the past few thousand years is far greater than it has been over the past few million years.”

Culture is one factor: due to increasing globalization, the 7,000 languages that the world speaks today could whittle down to just a hundred. In terms of climate change, darker skin may prove to be an evolutionary advantage — as more melanin protects humans from the dangerous UV rays that penetrate our atmosphere. Even the human physique could evolve in response to the changes of our environment; taller and slimmer bodies may prove better at managing increased heat.

Genetic mutations may also cause physical changes. It could be as subtle as a new eye color — or having the ability to see a hundred times more colors than before.It could also be a more drastic and unique ability, like the human body becoming able to digest new materials.

via AsapSCIENCE

Artificial Selection

Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, told National Geographic News that he thinks Darwinian evolution is speeding up in part due to our interactions with technology:

“The more advanced the technology gets, the greater an effect general intelligence will have on each individual’s economic and social success, because as technology gets more complex, you need more intelligence to master it.”

Natural evolutionary changes take thousands of years, but human-influenced changes will have a broader and more immediate impact. Breakthroughs in technology, which have made it possible to combine human biology with machines, could alter human evolution in ways we haven’t even considered yet: we already have bionic eye implants that could restore sight, and advanced prosthetics that can translate thought into motion.

Thanks to CRISPR, we now have the ability to modify DNA with such precision that we could use it to one day alter DNA and ensure the health of future babies, and maybe even completely eliminate undesirable traits. This however, leaves room for the possibility of limiting humans’ genetic diversity such that a single disease could actually wipe out the entire human race. While it’s certain that advances in technology have altered how we live now, the future remains uncertain — but with that comes near-limitless possibilities.

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Scientists May Have Discovered What Allowed Life to Evolve

The Origin of Life

Modern science has advanced significantly over the last couple of decades. We’ve managed to answer several of the world’s most long-standing questions, but some answers have continued to elude today’s scientists, including how life first emerged from the Earth’s primordial soup. However, a collaboration of physicists and biologists in Germany may have just found an explanation to how living cells first evolved.

In 1924, Russian biochemist Alexander Oparin proposed the idea that the first living cells could have evolved from liquid droplet protocells. He believed these protocells could have acted as naturally forming, membrane-free containers that concentrated chemicals and fostered reactions.

In their hunt for the origin of life, a team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, both in Dresden, drew from Oparin’s theory by studying the physics of “chemically active” droplets (droplets that cycle molecules from the fluid in which they are surrounded). Unlike a “passive” type of droplet, like oil in water, which will just continue to grow as more oil is added to the mix, the researchers realized that chemically active droplets grow to a set size and then divide on their own accord.

This behavior mimics the division of living cells and could therefore be the link between the nonliving primordial liquid soup from which life sprung and the living cells that eventually evolved to create all life on Earth. “It makes it more plausible that there could have been spontaneous emergence of life from nonliving soup,” said Frank Jülicher, co-author of the study that appeared in the journal Nature Physics in December 2016. It’s an explanation of “how cells made daughters,” said lead researcher David Zwicker. “This is, of course, key if you want to think about evolution.

Add a Droplet of Life

Some have speculated that these protocellular droplets might still be inside our system “like flies in life’s evolving amber.” To explore that theory, the team studied the physics of centrosomes, which are organelles active in animal cell division that seem to behave like droplets. Zwicker modeled an “out-of-equilibrium” centrosome system that was chemically active and cycling constituent proteins continuously in and out of the surrounding liquid cytoplasm. The proteins behave as either soluble (state A) or insoluble (state B).  An energy source can trigger a state reversal, causing the protein in state A to transform into state B by overcoming a chemical barrier. As long as there was an energy source, this chemical reaction could happen. “In the context of early Earth, sunlight would be the driving force,” Jülicher said.

Lucy Reading-Ikkanda/Quanta Magazine
Lucy Reading-Ikkanda/Quanta Magazine

Odarin famously believed that lighting strikes or geothermal activity on early Earth could’ve triggered these chemical reactions from the liquid protocells. This constant chemical influx and efflux would only counterbalance itself, according to Zwicker, when a certain volume was reached by the active droplet, which would then stop growing. Typically, the droplets could grow to about tens or hundreds of microns, according to Zwicker’s simulations. That’s about the same scale as cells.

The next step is to identify when these protocells developed the ability to transfer genetic information. Jülicher and his colleagues believe that somewhere along the way, the cells developed membranes, perhaps from the crusts they naturally develop out of lipids that prefer to remain at the intersection of the droplet and outside liquid. As a kind of protection for what’s within the cells, genes could’ve begun coding for these membranes. But knowing anything for sure still depends on more experiments.

So, if the very complex life on Earth could have begun from something as seemingly inconspicuous as liquid droplets, perhaps the same could be said of possible extraterrestrial life? In any case, this research could help us understand how life as we know it started from the simplest material and how the chemical processes that made our lives possible emerged from these. The energy and time it took for a protocell to develop into a living cell, and the living cells into more complex parts, until finally developing into an even more complex organism is baffling. The process itself took billions of years to happen, so it’s not surprising we need some significant time to fully understand it.

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Scientists May Have Uncovered the Key to the Origin of Complex Life

The Eukaryote’s Beginning

The exact moment where we can pinpoint the origin of complex life has long been a complicated question in itself. The fossil record has given us important information as to the approximate timeframe of when multicellular organisms began to appear, but estimates are still extremely far-reaching.

What we find is that our long-standing definition of this particular moment in time is constantly being reevaluated. Researchers at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology recently uncovered fossils belonging to multicellular eukaryotes that were traced back to 1.5 billion years ago.

An even more recent discovery places the clock even further back at two billion years – with a different culprit responsible for the precise onset of complex life.

Discovered by a team of scientists led by Thijs Ettema, the microbes belong to a group they dubbed ‘Asgard’ (yes, the same kingdom from Norse mythology). Although they have never actually been seen in real life, their DNA has.

Credit: Nature Publishing Group

 

To understand how crucial the Asgard microbes are to understanding the evolution of humanity, we must look at it from the very beginning. When the Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago, life existed as single-cellular units within two domains: bacteria and archaea. Approximately 2 billion years later, the domain Eukarya appears.

Eukaryotes are multicellular organisms that evolved rapidly over time and gave way to the animals, fungi, and protists that we see today. Somehow in the biological tree of life, there must have been an event that created these eukaryotes, and no one could pinpoint how they got there.

What was widely believed was that an archaeon and a bacterium fused to create a symbiotic relationship. Essentially, the archaeon became the early eukaryotic cell, and the bacterium became the mitochondria – the cells’ powerhouse.

In 2015, Ettema took from this hypothesis and added to it his encounter with the archaeon host. His team assessed samples from Loki’s Castle, a tract of hydrothermal vents resting between Greenland and Norway. The samples uncovered DNA from an archaeon that they named “Lokiarchaeota.”

Credit: Centre for Geobiology (University of Bergen, Norway) by R.B. Pedersen

From there on, others discovered similar DNA strands that were related to Lokiarchaeota. A team at the University of Texas in Austin names theirs “Thorarchaeota.” Their findings are published in The ISME Journal.

So far, we have Lokiarchaeota, Thorarchaeota, Odinarchaeota, and Heimdallarchaeota. Together, they make up the group Asgard, the first eukaryotic organisms that we are believed to be direct descendants of (or at least close relatives).

With Science Comes Skepticism

With all theories on the origin of complex life comes skepticism.

Some believe that eukaryotic building blocks were already present in our archaeal ancestors and that they had the right parts to later become a eukaryotic cell. With no one having witnessed an Asgardian microbe, this debate continues.

“It’s crucial that we have a look at the cells to see what they’re doing, but that’s extremely had,” Ettema stated. “Thor and Heimdall are present in shallower environments, but they’re less than 0.1 percent of the total microbial community. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, but we’re working on it.”

The quest for the origin of complex life on Earth brings up another enduring question: What about life outside of our planet?

Under similar conditions to that of primitive Earth, experiments have been able to produce chemical components of proteins, DNA, and RNA. Some of these molecules have also been found in meteorites and interstellar space using radio-telescopes. The findings have led us to believe that these building blocks of life could have existed on Earth since its beginning. The possibility of these molecules being present elsewhere within our universe does not seem so farfetched.

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Peter Diamandis Thinks We’re Evolving Toward “Meta-Intelligence”

From Natural Selection to Intelligent Direction

In the next 30 years, humanity is in for a transformation the likes of which we’ve never seen before—and XPRIZE Foundation founder and chairman Peter Diamandis believes that this will give birth to a new species. Diamandis admits that this might sound too far out there for most people. He is convinced, however, that we are evolving towards what he calls “meta-intelligence,” and today’s exponential rate of growth is one clear indication.

In an essay for Singularity Hub, Diamandis outlines the transformative stages in the multi-billion year pageant of evolution, and takes note of what the recent increasing “temperature” of evolution—a consequence of human activity—may mean for the future. The story, in a nutshell, is this—early prokaryotic life appears about 3.5 billion years ago (bya), representing perhaps a symbiosis of separate metabolic and replicative mechanisms of “life;” at 2.5 bya, eukaryotes emerge as composite organisms incorporating biological “technology” (other living things) within themselves; at 1.5 bya, multicellular metazoans appear as eukaryotes are yoked together in cooperative colonies; and at 400 million years ago, vertebrate fish species emerge onto land to begin life’s adventure beyond the seas.

“Today, at a massively accelerated rate—some 100 million times faster than the steps I outlined above—life is undergoing a similar evolution,” Diamandis writes. He thinks we’ve moved from a simple Darwinian evolution via natural selection into evolution by intelligent direction.

Credits: Richard Bizley/SPL
Credits: Richard Bizley/SPL

“I believe we’re rapidly heading towards a human-scale transformation, the next evolutionary step into what I call a “Meta-Intelligence,” a future in which we are all highly connected—brain to brain via the cloud—sharing thoughts, knowledge and actions,” he writes.

Change is Coming

Diamandis outlines the next stages of humanity’s evolution in four steps, each a parallel to his four evolutionary stages of life on Earth. There are four driving forces behind this evolution: our interconnected or wired world, the emergence of brain-computer interface (BCI), the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI), and man reaching for the final frontier of space.

In the next 30 years, humanity will move from the first stage—where we are today—to the fourth stage. From simple humans dependent on one another, humanity will incorporate technology into our bodies to allow for more efficient use of information and energy. This is already happening today.

The third stage is a crucial point.

Enabled with BCI and AI, humans will become massively connected with each other and billions of AIs (computers) via the cloud, analogous to the first multicellular lifeforms 1.5 billion years ago. Such a massive interconnection will lead to the emergence of a new global consciousness, and a new organism I call the Meta-Intelligence.

This brings to mind another futuristic event that many are eagerly anticipating: the technological singularity. “Within a quarter century, nonbiological intelligence will match the range and subtlety of human intelligence,” said notable futurist Ray Kurzweil, explaining the singularity.

Credits: Lovelace Turing
Credits: Lovelace Turing

“It will then soar past it because of the continuing acceleration of information-based technologies, as well as the ability of machines to instantly share their knowledge.” Kurzweil predicts that this will happen by 2045—within Diamandis’ evolutionary timeline. “The nonbiological intelligence created in that year will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today.”

The fourth and final stage marks humanity’s evolution to becoming a multiplanetary species. “Our journey to the moon, Mars, asteroids and beyond represents the modern-day analogy of the journey made by lungfish climbing out of the oceans some 400 million years ago,” Diamandis explains.

Buckle up: we have an exciting future ahead of us.

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A Brief History of Technology

Brief-History-of-Technology.jpg

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Beyond Darwin: Scientists May Be Redefining Evolution

Adding to Darwin’s Ideas

For years, scientists have subscribed to the ideas brought about by Darwin’s theory of evolution. In his book, On the Origin of Species, he outlines the main mechanism of natural selection, where traits that adapt better to a particular environment are inherited from one generation to another, thus gradually proliferating that trait within a population of species.

Advancements in the field of genetics have lead to a new theory — the Neo-Darwinian Theory of Evolution or Modern Evolutionary Synthesis (MES). In this theory, genes take center stage as a major mechanism of evolution.

Even now, scientists have been trying to build on the foundation that Darwin laid-out. New discoveries were presented at a meeting at the Royal Society called “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology.”  In a series of presentations on the new theory they call “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES),” the scientists describe one of their main assumptions: phenotypic accommodation, or the adaptive trait, can come before genetic changes can take place.

The scientists cited different examples for this, one of which was presented by Sonia Sultan, an evolutionary ecologist from the Wesleyan University. Sultan studied two groups of genetically identical plants called “smartweed” and placed them in two separate environments: one full of sunlight and the other with less light. The two groups grew into vastly different plants with traits suited for the environment that they grew in.

A New Way to Think About Evolution

The ideas presented in the meeting were met with heavy skepticism, with proponents of the MES theory like researcher David Shuker, calling out one of the presenters. He declared the results of the studies “a perfect, beautiful example of rapid neo-Darwinian evolution,” a sentiment shared by other skeptics that wonder if EES was a necessary paradigm shift.

Still, Douglas Futuyma – a biologist at Stony Brook University in New York, and defender of the MES theory – sees some use of the EES theory, as it could lead to new insights about evolution. However, he challenges the proponents of EES to back it up with hard data.

Kevin Laland, an evolutionary biologist from the University of St. Andrews, says they intend on finding hard evidence: “It’s doing the research, which is what our critics are telling us to do.” The data from these studies could give us new insight to the origins of humanity and our relationship with other organisms on our planet.

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Breakthrough: Scientists See the Evolution of a New Species Occur in a Flask

An Experiment in Evolution

Biologists from the University of California San Diego and Michigan State University were ready to wait a while for results when they began an experiment to study speciation, an evolutionary process proposed by Charles Darwin in which one species splits into two distinct species. Imagine their surprise when they witnessed the process happening after just one month.

In a study published in Science, researcher Justin Meyer, an assistant professor of biology at UC San Diego, and colleagues explain that they first cultured a virus known as bacteriophage lambda, which can infect E.coli bacteria using two receptors (molecules viruses attach to outside a cell’s wall). Then the researchers gave the virus two types of cells to infect, each with its own type of receptor, and watched as it evolved into two completely new species, each specializing in one receptor type.

“The virus we started the experiment with, the one with the nondiscriminatory appetite, went extinct. During the process of speciation, it was replaced by its more evolved descendants with a more refined palette,” Meyer explained to Phys.org.

Darwin Got It Right

“[S]peciation has been notoriously difficult to thoroughly investigate because it happens too slowly to directly observe,” said Meyer. “Without direct evidence for speciation, some people have doubted the importance of evolution and Darwin’s theory of natural selection.”

No need to be skeptical now. “With these experiments, no one can doubt whether speciation occurs,” he continued. “More importantly, we now have an experimental system to test many previously untestable ideas about the process.”

This research is quite impressive, and future experiments will no doubt teach us even more about the processes of speciation and evolution. Combined with our advancing knowledge of genetics, this new information could help us understand how to live longer, treat diseases, or maybe even weed them out altogether.

Charles Darwin got it right. The fittest survive, and we could use this knowledge about speciation to ensure that our species is as fit as it can be.

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